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First Violin, The


CHAPTER XXIV.

“My Lady’s Glory.”

“Königsallée, No. 3,” wrote Adelaide to me, “is the house which has been taken for us. We shall be there on Tuesday evening.”

I accepted this communication in my own sense, and did not go to meet Adelaide, nor visit her that evening, but wrote a card, saying I would come on the following morning. I had seen the house which had been taken for Sir Peter and Lady Le Marchant—a large, gloomy-looking house, with a tragedy attached to it, which had stood empty ever since I had come to Elberthal.

Up to the fashionable Königsallée, under the naked chestnut avenue, and past the great long Caserne and Exerzierplatz—a way on which I did not as a rule intrude my ancient and poverty-stricken garments, I went on the morning after Adelaide’s arrival. Lady Le Marchant had not yet left her room, but if I were Miss Wedderburn I was to be taken to her immediately. Then I was taken upstairs, and had time to remark upon the contrast between my sister’s surroundings and my own, before I was delivered over to a lady’s-maid—French in nationality—who opened a door and announced me as Mlle. Veddairebairne. I had a rapid, dim impression that it was quite the chamber of a grande dame, in the midst of which stood my lady herself, having slowly risen as I came in.

“At last you have condescended to come,” said the old proud, curt voice.

“How are you, Adelaide?” said I, originally, feeling that any display of emotion would be unwelcome and inappropriate, and moreover, feeling any desire to indulge in the same suddenly evaporate.

She took my hand loosely, gave me a little chilly kiss on the cheek, and then held me off at arms’-length to look at me.

I did not speak. I could think of nothing agreeable to say. The only words that rose to my lips were, “How very ill you look!” and I wisely concluded not to say them. She was very beautiful, and looked prouder and more imperious than ever. But she was changed. I could not tell what it was. I could find no name for the subtle alteration; ere long I knew only too well what it was. Then, I only knew that she was different from what she had been, and different in a way that aroused tenfold all my vague forebodings.

She was wasted too—had gone, for her, quite thin; and the repressed restlessness of her eyes made a disagreeable impression upon me. Was she perhaps wasted with passion and wicked thoughts? She looked as if it would not have taken much to bring the smoldering fire into a blaze of full fury—as if fire and not blood ran in her veins.

She was in a loose silk dressing-gown, which fell in long folds about her stately figure. Her thick black hair was twisted into a knot about her head. She was surrounded on all sides with rich and costly things. All the old severe simplicity of style had vanished—it seemed as if she had gratified every passing fantastic wish or whim of her restless, reckless spirit, and the result was a curious medley of the ugly, grotesque, ludicrous and beautiful—a feverish dream of Cleopatra-like luxury, in the midst of which she stood, as beautiful and sinuous as a serpent, and looking as if she could be, upon occasion, as poisonous as the same.

She looked me over from head to foot with piercing eyes, and then said half scornfully, half enviously:

“How well a stagnant life seems to suit some people! Now you—you are immensely improved—unspeakably improved. You have grown into a pretty woman—more than a pretty woman. I shouldn’t have thought a few months could make such an alteration in any one.”

Her words struck me as a kind of satire upon herself.

“I might say the same to you,” said I, constrainedly. “I think you are very much altered.”

Indeed I felt strangely ill at ease with the beautiful creature who, I kept trying to convince myself, was my sister Adelaide, but who seemed further apart from me than ever. But the old sense of fascination which she had been wont to exercise over me returned again in all or in more than its primitive strength.

“I want to talk to you,” said she, forcing me into a deep easy-chair. “I have millions of things to ask you. Take off your hat and mantle. You must stay all day. Heavens! how shabby you are! I never saw anything so worn out—and yet your dress suits you, and you look nice in it.” (She sighed deeply.) “Nothing suits me now. Formerly I looked well in everything. I should have looked well in rags, and people would have turned to look after me. Now, whatever I put on makes me look hideous.”

“Nonsense!”

“It does—And I am glad of it,” she added, closing her lips as if she closed in some bitter joy.

“I wish you would tell me why you have come here,” I inquired, innocently. “I was so astonished. It was the last place I should have thought of your coming to.”

“Naturally. But you see Sir Peter adores me so that he hastens to gratify my smallest wish. I expressed a desire one day to see you, and two days afterward we were en route. He said I should have my wish. Sisterly love was a beautiful thing, and he felt it his duty to encourage it.”

I looked at her, and could not decide whether she were in jest or earnest. If she were in jest, it was but a sorry kind of joke—if in earnest, she chose a disagreeably flippant manner of expressing herself.

“Sir Peter has great faith in annoying and thwarting me,” she went on. “He has been looking better and more cheerful ever since we left Rome.”

“But Adelaide—if you wished to leave Rome—”

“But I did not wish to leave Rome. I wished to stay—so we came away, you know.”

The suppressed rage and hatred in her tone made me feel uncomfortable. I avoided speaking, but I could not altogether avoid looking at her. Our eyes met, and Adelaide burst into a peal of harsh laughter.

“Oh, your face, May! It is a study! I had a particular objection to coming to Elberthal, therefore Sir Peter instantly experienced a particular desire to come. When you are married you will understand these things. I was almost enjoying myself in Rome; I suppose Sir Peter was afraid that familiarity might bring dislike, or that if we stayed too long I might feel it dull. This is a gay, lively place, I believe—we came here, and for aught I know we are going to stay here.”

She laughed again, and I sat aghast. I had been miserable about Adelaide’s marriage, but I had very greatly trusted in what she had prognosticated about being able to do what she liked with him. I began now to think that there must have been some miscalculation—that she had mistaken the metal and found it not quite so ductile as she had expected. I knew enough of her to be aware that I was probably the first person to whom she had spoken in such a manner, and that not even to me would she have so spoken unless some strong feeling had prompted her to it. This made me still more uneasy. She held so fast by the fine polish of the outside of the cup and platter. Very likely the world in general supposed that she and Sir Peter were a model couple.

“I am glad you are here,” she pursued. “It is a relief to have some one else than Arkwright to speak to.”

“Who is Arkwright?”

“Sir Peter’s secretary—a very good sort of boy. He knows all about our domestic bliss and other concerns—because he can’t help. Sir Peter tells him—”

A hand on the door-handle outside. A pause ere the persons came in, for Sir Peter’s voice was audible, giving directions to some one, probably the secretary of whom Adelaide had spoken. She started violently; the color fled from her face; pale dismay painted itself for a moment upon her lips, but only for a moment. In the next she was outwardly herself again. But the hand trembled which passed her handkerchief over her lips.

The door was fully opened, and Sir Peter came in.

Yes; that was the same face, the same pent-house of ragged eyebrow over the cold and snaky eye beneath, the same wolfish mouth and permanent hungry smile. But he looked better, stouter, stronger; more cheerful. It seemed as if my lady’s society had done him a world of good, and acted as a kind of elixir of life.

I observed Adelaide. As he came in her eyes dropped; her hand closed tightly over the handkerchief she held, crushing it together in her grasp; she held her breath; then, recovered, she faced him.

“Heyday! Whom have we here?” he asked, in a voice which time and a residence in hearing of the language of music had not mollified. “Whom have we here? Your dress-maker, my lady? Have you had to send for a dress-maker already? Ha! what? Your sister? Impossible! Miss May, I am delighted to see you again! Are you very well? You look a little—a—shabby, one might almost say, my dear—a little seedy, hey?”

I had no answer ready for this winning greeting.

“Rather like my lady before she was my lady,” he continued, pleasantly, as his eyes roved over the room, over its furniture, over us.

There was power—a horrible kind of strength and vitality in that figure—a crushing impression of his potency to make one miserable, conveyed in the strong, rasping voice. Quite a different Sir Peter from my erstwhile wooer. He was a masculine, strong, planning creature, whose force of will was able to crush that of my sister as easily as her forefinger might crush a troublesome midge. He was not blind or driveling; he could reason, plot, argue, concoct a systematic plan for revenge, and work it out fully and in detail; he was able at once to grasp the broadest bearing and the minute details of a position, and to act upon their intimations with crushing accuracy. He was calm, decided, keen, and all in a certain small, bounded, positive way which made him all the more efficient as a ruling factor in this social sphere, where small, bounded, positive strength, without keen sympathies save in the one direction—self—and without idea of generosity, save with regard to its own merits, pays better than a higher kind of strength—better than the strength of Joan of Arc, or St. Stephen, or Christ.

This was the real Sir Peter, and before the revelation I stood aghast. And that look in Adelaide’s eyes, that tone in her voice, that restrained spring in her movements, would have been rebellion, revolution, but in the act of breaking forth it became—fear. She had been outwitted, most thoroughly and completely. She had got a jailer and a prison. She feared the former, and every tradition of her life bade her remain in the latter.

Sir Peter, pleasantly exhilarated by my confusion and my lady’s sullen silence, proceeded with an agreeable smile:

“Are you never coming down-stairs, madame? I have been deprived long enough of the delights of your society. Come down! I want you to read to me.”

“I am engaged, as you may see,” she answered in a low voice of opposition.

“Then the engagement must be deferred. There is a great deal of reading to do. There is the ‘Times’ for a week.”

“I hate the ‘Times,’ and I don’t understand it.”

“So much the more reason why you should learn to do so. In half an hour,” said Sir Peter, consulting his watch, “I shall be ready, or say in quarter of an hour.”

“Absurd! I can not be ready in quarter of an hour. Where is Mr. Arkwright?”

“What is Mr. Arkwright to you, my dear? You may be sure that Mr. Arkwright’s time is not being wasted. If his mamma knew what he was doing she would be quite satisfied—oh, quite. In quarter of an hour.”

He was leaving the room, but paused at the door, with a suspicious look.

“Miss May, it is a pity for you to go away. It will do you good to see your sister, I am sure. Pray spend the day with us. Now, my lady, waste no more time.”

With that he finally departed. Adelaide’s face was white, but she did not address me. She rang for her maid.

“Dress my hair, Toinette, and do it as quickly as possible. Is my dress ready?” was all she said.

Mais oui, madame.

“Quick!” she repeated. “You have only quarter of an hour.”

Despite the suppressed cries, expostulations, and announcements that it was impossible, Adelaide was dressed in quarter of an hour.

“You will stay, May?” said she; and I knew it was only the presence of Toinette which restrained her from urgently imploring me to stay.

I remained, though not all day; only until it was time to go and have my lesson from von Francius. During my stay, however, I had ample opportunity to observe how things were.

Sir Peter appeared to have lighted upon a congenial occupation somewhat late in life, or perhaps previous practice had made him an adept in it. His time was fully occupied in carrying out a series of experiments upon his wife’s pride, with a view to humble and bring it to the ground. If he did not fully succeed in that, he succeeded in making her hate him as scarcely ever was man hated before.

They had now been married some two or three months, and had forsworn all semblance of a pretense at unity or concord. She thwarted him as much as she could, and defied him as far as she dared. He played round and round his victim, springing upon her at last, with some look, or word, or hint, or smile, which meant something—I know not what—that cowed her.

Oh, it was a pleasant household!—a cheerful, amiable scene of connubial love, in which this fair woman of two-and-twenty found herself, with every prospect of its continuing for an indefinite number of years; for the Le Marchants were a long-lived family, and Sir Peter ailed nothing.


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